Closing the datacentre skills gap by tapping up career changers

The UK datacentre industry is in the midst of a prolonged and well-publicised skills crisis, as there are simply not enough people entering the sector despite more students studying science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects.

Might it be time to look again at how best to attract candidates from other walks of life, such as career changers?

That’s according to Jacqueline Davis, research analyst at Uptime Intelligence, which reported in its 2023 datacentre survey analysis that UK trade-school and university graduate talent pipelines to the datacentre remain “immature”, with insufficient talent coming through and candidates getting poached by other sectors.

“People who do get qualified applicants into jobs find them hired away,” she says in a related webinar. Thirty-five percent of Uptime survey respondents report poaching – a higher proportion than in other industries.

Uptime’s conversations suggest the problem is mostly in operations and merger and acquisition (M&A) related roles, with entry-level operations and junior staff being the classic pipeline for talent working up towards staffing other areas of the datacentre such as electrical or mechanical design. And attracting more women will be key.

“Most of our respondents are at 10% of women in these teams or less,” Davis says. “We’ve even designed our categories to pick out those [organisations with] 10% from those at less than 5% versus those with none at all. So that’s not a great story.”

Although the industry has tried to “rebalance gender” in recent years, that is yet to show up in Uptime’s data. The trends of years past around datacentre design, build and operations remain “overwhelmingly male”, according to Davis.

Education challenge

Gail Stapleford, CyrusOne international senior director of human resources, points out there’s a massive marketing and education challenge for datacentres.

“The perception and the reality are quite different out there. Five years ago, when I came into service here, I had no idea what a datacentre was and many people do not,” she says.

Yet multiple skill sets and backgrounds can make a difference in the datacentre world, whether “at the front end” or in the datacentre itself. CyrusOne has found great candidates among, for instance, mechanical or electrical engineering graduates leaving the armed services.

“If you can make a submarine work, you can probably be quite useful in a datacentre,” Stapleford says. “But we have people from all sorts of different backgrounds and anybody can be trained in various skills and processes.”

You can train people on the tech, if they have the right sort of attitudes and behaviours
Wendy Shearer, Pulsant

Work with “carefully selected” recruitment agency partners, she recommends, avoiding a “scattergun approach”.

CyrusOne discovers many useful candidates via referrals as well – one hire will suggest other people who might suit and also be interested, and so on. That’s the power of having people in general talking more about the datacentre and what they do, which can itself bring candidates to the door, she says.

When it comes to flexibility, consider proactively offering job shares or adjusting shift patterns, and ensure the company is receptive when employees need something to change, perhaps because something in their home life has altered, she adds.

“Within our datacentres at the moment, they are all full-time shifts, either eight or 12 hours, but that’s not to say they need be,” Stapleford says, adding that those roles can still deliver useful certainty for parents, for example, because they can know a year or more in advance when they will be working.

Increasing appeal

Wendy Shearer, director of smart cities and ecosystems at edge infrastructure provider Pulsant, broadly agrees. Datacentres need to market their opportunities better, increasing appeal to those outside the industry.

Colocation, hosting and datacentre roles can be flexible as well as inherently innovative and exciting. Opportunities exist to work regionally, or on key challenges from sustainability to connectivity – especially as the industry moves more into managed services, edge-to-compute, and cloud, she points out.

“I put my hand up for this role about a year ago, having worked in public-sector IT for half my life,” Shearer says. “It’s been brilliant because I can create something the way that I think it’s needed. And you can train people on the tech, if they have the right sort of attitudes and behaviours.”

Shearer admits that for her, working in tech happened via someone she met while travelling who was setting up an IBM reseller and suggested she get in touch. To solve the skills shortage, datacentres need to proactively seek out those with aptitude and affinity, including a strong work ethic and desire to learn. Consider cross-industry collaborations, facilitating time and resource to grow talent, through specialist training firms like FDM for returners and government programmes available.

Also, offer flexibility. “I call myself a first-generation BlackBerry mum, allowed to go part-time when I had my babies,” Shearer says. “That meant a lot. Having a BlackBerry, I could always be contacted.”

Ways to broaden your view of hiring

James Lloyd-Townshend, chairman and chief executive at Netsuite recruiter Anderson Frank, says candidates often believe that penetrating tech niches may be too difficult. They are also often unaware of transferable skills they might have: “Demystify the nature and purpose of datacentre work, which can sound very vague.”

He says language and biasing tendencies that sometimes appear in job descriptions, advertisements and so on, need attention, as well as communication of the role datacentres play in various sectors from e-commerce to data science, and their evolution. Cross-training and upskilling may also need more emphasis.

“Breaking down learning journeys into clear digestible parts will go some way towards making the process feel achievable for those who might be considering a mid-career shift,” Lloyd-Townshend says.

Even tech career uptake among Generation Z – often defined as the cohort born 1997-2012 – has been lower than anticipated, Lloyd-Townshend points out.

Overall, networking opportunities, role-model presentation, and career progression need to be better marketed and communicated more broadly, with project management, technical network, data management, cyber security and multi-cloud all skill sets that could benefit from improved recruitment strategies, he says.

Jad Jebara, chief executive of datacentre infrastructure management company Hyperview, backs this opinion.

“You have to go and educate people about all this. This part of the economic sector is growing, opportunities are available, tools have evolved,” he says. “Everything is digitised, and it’s going to continue to grow – that’s where the future is. Yet shortages are very bad and it’s hard to find people already trained to go into datacentres.”

And why not consider hiring globally? Companies like have emerged that can hire resources at all levels across the globe, including developers, quality assurance staff and more, on behalf of other organisations, Jebara suggests.

A battle for talent

Alastair Brown, chief technology officer at SME-focused cloud software vendor BrightHR, points out that talent acquisition has “always been a battle” in IT, but it has successfully attracted people from other roles or different industries – candidates from retail who became great performers, for example.

“We’ve acquired super customer-focused skills and organisational skills. The competency of business analysis can be taught – but the attitude of customer centricity or focus is much harder to teach,” says Brown.

“That means talk less about amazing engineering opportunities and more about the opportunities to create products that customers love. Also, unless you’re hiring a principal or senior, you should not be going out to say that they ‘must have experience of this role’.”

And more emphasis on fostering female talent is essential, he adds.

Focus on attributes and affinity, recognising that you will need capacity for mentoring and training programmes. Hire less conservatively, retaining a few seniors, a few mid-rangers, and perhaps more juniors as a result.  People can’t train others or learn themselves if they don’t have time to do so, he points out.

Brown says organisations must also make it clear to themselves and candidates that it is fine to try someone in a task and then after a year or so conclude it is not quite working out for whatever reason.

“You need to accept that if you hire people that have the right character and attributes and culture but without the skills, you might fail to lift them to the point they need to be and that is OK. Be open and honest about that,” Brown says. “It’s often about managing risk.”

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